Reminiscences by Horace Greeley


  My wife, having spent much time in and near Boston, had there made Margaret’s acquaintance, attended her conversations, accepted her leading ideas; and, desiring to enjoy her society more intimately and continuously, Mrs. Greeley planned and partly negotiated an arrangement whereby her monitor and friend became an in:” mate of our family and a writer for the Tribune.

  Up to the close of the Presidential canvass in 1844, I had lived thirteen years in New York, and never half a mile from the City Hall-usually within sixty rods of it. The newspaper business requiring close attention, and being wholly prosecuted “down town” it seemed, when I once ventured to live up so far as Broome Street, that I had strayed to an inconvenient distance from my work; but when the great struggle was over, and I the worst beaten man on the continent-worn out by incessant anxiety and effort, covered with boils, and thoroughly used up-I took a long stride landward, removing to a spacious old wooden house, built as a country or summer residence by Isaac Lawrence, formerly president of the United States Branch Bank, but which, since his death, had been neglected and suffered to decay. It was located on eight acres of ground, including a wooded ravine, or dell, on the East River, at Turtle Bay, nearly opposite the southernmost point of Blackwell’s Island, amid shade and fruit trees, abundant shrubbery, ample garden, etc.; and, though now for years perforated by streets, and in good part covered by buildings, was then so secluded as to be only reached by a narrow, devious, private lane, exceedingly dark at night for one accustomed to the glare of gas-lamps; the nearest highway being the old “Boston Road’’ at Forty-ninth Street; while an hourly stage on the Third Avenue, just beyond, afforded our readiest means of transit to and from the city proper. Accustomed to the rumble and roar of carriages, the stillness here at night seemed at first so sepulchral, unearthly, that I found difficulty in sleeping. Of the place itself, Margaret-who became one of our household soon after we took possession-wrote thus to a friend:

  “This place is, to me, entirely charming; it is so completely in the country, and all around is so bold and free. It is two miles or more from the thickly settled parts of New York, but omnibuses and cars give me constant access to the city; and, while I can readily see what and whom I will, I can command time and retirement. Stopping on the Harlem Road, you enter a lane nearly a quarter of a mile long, and going by a small brook and pond that lock in the place and ascending a slightly rising ground, get sight of the house, which, old-fashioned and of mellow tint, fronts on a Bower-garden filled with shrubs, large vines, and trim box borders. On both sides of the house are beautiful trees, standing fair, full-grown, and clear. Passing through a wide hall you come out upon a piazza stretching the whole length of the house, where one can walk in all weathers; and thence, by a step or two, on a lawn, with picturesque masses of rocks, shrubs, and trees overlooking the East River. Gravel-paths lead by several turns down the steep bank to the water’s edge, where, round the rocky point, a small bay curves, in which boats are lying, and owing to the current and the set of the tide, the sails glide sidelong, seeming to greet the house as they sweep by. The beauty here, seen by moonlight, is truly transporting. I enjoy it greatly, and the genus loci receives me as to a home.”

  The first impressions made by Margaret, even on those who soon learned to admire her most, were not favourable; and it was decidedly so in my case. A sufferer myself, and at times scarcely able to ride to and from the office, I yet did a day’s work each day, regardless of nerves or moods; but she had no such capacity for incessant labour. If quantity only were considered, I could easily write ten columns to her one; indeed, she would only write at all when in the vein; and her headaches and other infirmities often precluded all labour for days. Meantime, perhaps, the interest of the theme had evaporated, or the book to be reviewed had the bloom brushed from its cheek by some rival journal. Attendance and care were very needful to her; she would evidently have been happier amid other and more abundant furniture than graced our dwelling; and, while nothing was said, I felt that a richer and more generous diet than ours would have been more accordant with her tastes and wishes. Then I had a notion that strongminded women should be above the weakness of fearing to go anywhere, at any time, alone-that the sex would have to emancipate itself from thraldom to etiquette and the need of a masculine arm in crossing the street or a room before it could expect to fight its way to the bar, the bench, the jury-box, and the polls. Nor was I wholly exempt from the vulgar prejudice against female claimants of functions hitherto devolved only on men, as mistaking the source of their dissatisfaction. . . .

  I very soon noted, even before I was prepared to ratify their judgment, that the women who visited us to make or improve her acquaintance seemed instinctively to recognise and defer to her as their superior in thought and culture. Some who were her seniors, and whose writings had achieved a far wider and more profitable popularity than hers, were eager to sit at her feet, and to listen to her casual utterances as to those of an oracle. Yet there was no assumption of precedence, no exaction of deference, on her part; for, though somewhat stately and reserved in the presence of strangers, no one “thawed out” more completely, or was more unstarched and cordial in manner when surrounded by her friends. Her magnetic sway over these was marvellous, unaccountable; women who had known her but a day revealed to her the most jealously guarded secrets of their lives, seeking her sympathy and counsel thereunto, and were themselves annoyed at having done so when the magnetism of her presence was withdrawn. I judge that she was the repository of more confidences than any contemporary; and I am sure no one had ever reason to regret the imprudent precipitancy of their trust. Nor were these revelations made by those only of her own plane of life, but chambermaids and seamstresses unburdened their souls to her, seeking and receiving her counsel; while children found her a delightful playmate and a capital friend. My son Arthur (otherwise “Pickie”), who was but eight months old when she came to us, learned to walk and to talk in her society, and to love and admire her as few but nearest relatives are loved and admired by a child. For, as the elephant’s trunk serves either to rend a limb from the oak, or to pick up a pin, so her wonderful range of capacities, of experiences, of sympathies, seemed adapted to every condition and phase of humanity. She had marvellous powers of personation and mimicry, and, had she condescended to appear before the footlights, would have soon been recognised as the first actress of the nineteenth century. For every effort to limit vice, ignorance, and misery she had a ready eager ear, and a willing hand; so that her charities-large in proportion to her slender means-were signally enhanced by the fitness and fulness of her wise and generous counsel, the readiness and emphasis with which she, publicly and privately, commended to those richer than herself any object deserving their alms. She had once attended, with other noble women, a gathering of outcasts of their sex; and, being asked how they appeared to her, replied: “As women like myself, save that they are victims of wrong and misfortune.” No project of moral or social reform ever failed to command her generous, cheering benediction, even when she could not share the sanguine hopes of its authors; she trusted that these might somehow benefit the objects of their self-sacrifice, and felt confident that they must, at all events, be blessed in their own moral natures. I doubt that our various benevolent and reformatory associations had ever before, or have ever since, received such wise, discriminating commendation to the favour of the rich, as they did from her pen during her connection with the Tribune. . . .

  Though ten years had not passed since her first visit to Emerson, at Concord, so graphically narrated by him in a reminiscence wherefrom I have already quoted, care and suffering had meantime detracted much from the lightness of her step, the buoyancy of her spirits. If in any of her varying moods she was so gay-hearted and mirth-provoking as he there describes her, I never happened to be a witness; but then I was never so intimate and admired a friend as he became at an early day and remained to the last. Satirical she could still be, on great provocations; but she rarely, and, I judge, reluctantly, gave evidence of her eminent power to rebuke assumption or meanness by caricaturing or intensifying their unconscious exhibition. She could be joyous, and even merry; but her usual manner, while with us, was one of grave thoughtfulness, absorption in noble deeds, and in paramount aspirations and efforts to leave some narrow comer of the world somewhat better than she had found it. . . .

  In the summer of 1846—modifying but not terminating her connection with the Tribune—Margaret left New York for Boston, and, after a parting visit to her relatives and early friends, took passage thence (August 1st) tor Europe. As I last saw her on the steamboat that bore her hence, I might, perhaps, bid her adieu. But my recollections of her do not cease with her departure; and I feel that my many young readers, whose previous acquaintance with her was but a vague tradition, cannot choose that she be thus abruptly dismissed from these reminiscences, but will prefer to hear more of the most remarkable, and in some respects the greatest, woman whom America has yet known. I therefore devote some pages to her subsequent career, only regretting that time and space do not serve to render that career ampler justice.

  Leaving in the company of admiring, devoted friends, who welcomed her to the intimacy of their family circle, and writing to the Tribune whenever she (too seldom) found topics of interest that did not trench upon her deference to the sanctities of social intercourse, she first traversed Great Britain, meeting with and conversing with Wordsworth, Joanna Baillie, DeQuincey, Carlyle, Mazzini, Dr. Chalmers, the Howitts, and many other celebrities-most of whom have since passed away-thence crossing to France, where she met George Sand, Beranger, La Mennais, saw Rachel act, and listened to a lecture by Arago. The next spring (1847), she, with her party, sped to Italy, coasting to Naples, and thence returning leisurely to Rome, where Pius IX had just been made Pope, and had signalized his accession by words of sympathy and cheer for the aspiration to freedom of down-trodden millions, which he has long since recanted, but they refused to forget.

  Passing thence to Florence, Bologna, Ravenna, to Venice, she there parted with the friends who had thus far been her companions in travel-they crossing the Alps on their homeward way, while she, fully identified with the newborn hopes of Italy-had decided to remain. After hastily visiting Vicenza, Verona, Mantua, Brescia, Milan, the lakes Garda, Maggiore, and Como, and spending a few days ‘in southern Switzerland, she returned, via Milan and Florence, to Rome, august “city of the soul,” which she had chosen for her future home, and whence she wrote (December 20th) to her friend Emerson:

  “I find how true was the hope that always drew me towards Europe. It was no false instinct that said I might here find an atmosphere to develop me in ways that I need. Had I only come ten years earlier. Now my life must be a failure, so much strength has been wasted on abstractions, which only came because I grew not on the right soil.”

  She was privately married, not long after her return to Rome, to Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, of a noble but impoverished Roman family. He had caught the infection of liberal principles from the air, or from her, his three brothers being, as he had been, in the papal service, and so remaining after the Pope had disappointed the hopes excited by his first words and acts under the tiara. In the troublous times then imminent, it was deemed expedient to keep their marriage a close secret, as their only hope in securing their share of the patrimony of Ossoli’s recently deceased father; and she spent the ensuing summer at the little mountain village of Rieti, where her son Angelo was born. Returning before winter to Rome, she became at once a trusted counsellor of Mazzini during the brief but glorious era of the republic; and, when the city was invested and besieged by a French army, she was appointed director of a hospital, and therein found a sphere of sad but earnest and beneficent activity. . . .

  Having somewhat regained her health and calmness at Rieti, she journeyed thence, with her husband and child, by Perugia to Florence, where they were welcomed and cheered by the love and admiration of the little American colony, and by the few British Liberals residing there—the Brownings prominent among them. Here they spent the ensuing winter, and Margaret wrote her survey of the grand movement for Italian liberty and unity, which had miscarried for the moment, but which was still cherished in millions of noble hearts. With the ensuing spring came urgent messages from her native land, waking, or rather strengthening, her natural longing to greet once more the dear ones from whom she had now been four years parted; and on the 17th of May, 1850, they embarked in the bark Elizabeth, Captain Hasty, at Leghorn, for New York, which they hoped to reach within sixty days at farthest.

  Margaret’s correspondence for the preceding month is darkened with apprehensions and sinister forebodings, which were destined to be fearfully justified. First, Captain Hasty was prostrated when a few days on his voyage, with what proved to be confluent small-pox, whereof he died, despite his wife’s tenderest care, and his body was consigned to the deep. Then Angelo, Margaret’s child, was attacked by the terrible disease, and his life barely saved, after he had been for days utterly blind and his recovery seemed hopeless. So, after a week’s detention by headwinds at Gibraltar, they fared on, under the mate’s guidance, until at noon on July 15th, in a thick fog with a southeast breeze, they reckoned themselves off the Jersey coast, and headed northeast for the bay of New York, which they expected to enter next morning. But the evening brought a gale, which steadily increased to a tempest, before which, though under close-reefed sails, they were driven with a rapidity of which they were unconscious, until about four o’clock the next morning the Elizabeth struck heavily on Fire Island Beach, off the south coast of Long Island, and her prow was driven harder and farther into the sand, while her freight of marble broke through her keel, and her stern was gradually hove around by the terrible waves until she lay broadside to their thundering sweep, her deck being careened towards the land, the sea making a clear sweep over her at every swell. . . . But Margaret and her husband refused to be saved separately, or without their child; and the crew were directed to save themselves, which most of them did. Still, some remained on the wreck, and were persuading the passengers to trust themselves to planks, when, at 8 P.M., a great sea struck the foremast, together with the deck and all upon it. Two of the crew saved themselves by swimming; the steward, with little Angelo in his arms, both dead, were washed ashore twenty minutes later; but of Margaret and her husband nothing was evermore seen. Just before setting out on this fateful voyage she had written apprehensively to a friend at home:

  “I shall embark more composedly in our merchant-ship, praying fervently, indeed, that it may not be my lot to lose my boy at sea, either by unsolaced illness, or amid howling waves; or, if so, that Ossoli, Angelo, and I may go together, and that the anguish may be brief.”

  So passed away the loftiest, bravest soul that has yet irradiated the form of an American woman.

1 From Greeley’s Recollection of a Busy Life, by permission of the heirs of Ida Greeley Smith.